James Ruggia | June 05, 2015 3:00 PM ET
Every April, the Thai New Year, known here in Bangkok as Songkran, comes to towns and cities all over Thailand as people let their serious composure take a walk so they can begin the giggling business of splashing each other with water. Maybe it’s that annual recharge of giggling glee that grounds the people here in what the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) call “Thainess.”
Earlier this year, the TAT promoted Songkran as an elemental celebration of Thainess, a newly minted word that you’ll be hearing more and more. “Discover Thainess,” the TAT’s current campaign, puts its stake where Thailand feels most confident — in the authentic hospitality of its people, an article of travel faith that has been rattled by the country’s recent social and political upheavals.
“Americans and Europeans want to experience authentic culture when they travel long-haul,” said Jamnong Junnapiya, the TAT’s executive director for the Americas Region. But those authentic experiences grow ever more difficult to find in destinations where there are so many tourists that tourism’s culture takes over and drives what is real about a place into the background or out of the picture altogether.
Tourism success can be dangerous, and when it comes to tourism Thailand is very successful. Last year, despite the country’s political problems, about 25 million international visitors arrived in Thailand, about 27 percent of them coming from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. So far this year, the numbers show that the TAT’s target of 28 million visitors is right on track. Bangkok, a pariah just a year ago, was just ranked second on MasterCard’s Global Destinations Cities Index, edged out only by the wildly successful London.
Thailand shares a challenge with London, keeping the destination fresh for the enormous amount of travelers who go back again and again. To achieve that, the TAT is developing and promoting off-path destinations for travelers. “We have created a new promotion called Hidden Gems, which goes to areas that are not heavily visited by tourists. It helps distribute the tourist traffic to new places that are still fresh,” said Junnapiya.
Thai tourism isn’t driven by iconic attractions. Though there’s a “must see” check-list as there is everywhere, tourism here is more experiential than attraction based. Yes you want to see the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but it’s not why you came. Thailand is something of a state of mind that you enter from the minute you receive that first traditional Thai greeting called the “wai.”
It’s a simple gesture in which the palms of the hands and the tips of the fingers are pressed lightly together and accompanied by a bow with eye contact. It stops the social flow of half-hearted interaction and creates an oasis of perspective and consideration of the soul in front of you. Stepping out of the flow of events and creating moments of near meditative calm is essential to Thainess.
You can be on the craziest honk honkiest street in Bangkok and you look down and see that someone has floated flower petals in a basin. Instantly, your mind returns to a slower, simpler cadence and you’re pulled out of that street and back into a mindful awareness of yourself, just for a second. Mindfulness, a cardinal ethic in Buddhism, is reflected in these details and in the way the people carry themselves in Thailand, the soft speech and the elegantly gentle movement. All of it, all of this Thainess, holds back the brute indifference that so often grates the air between strangers.
The TAT’s list of brand pillars for Discover Thainess includes Thai Food, Thai Arts, Thai Way of Life, Thai Wellness, Thai Festivity, Thai Wisdom and Thai Fun.
“In this region,” said Juthaporn Rerngronasa, acting governor of TAT and deputy governor for international marketing, “everyone has nice beaches, great food and culture. We have to emphasize what you can only get in Thailand.”
My travels in Thailand always seem to bring me back to the country’s two most famous rivers: the Chao Phraya running through Bangkok and the mighty Mekong. Like a river, Thailand has a dual aspect of rich and swiftly moving currents beneath a sparkling surface. There’s plenty that sparkles here, but it’s that powerful gentleness that moves beneath the glitter that you connect to and come back to when you come to Thailand.
And while it’s important for us to remember why we go to Thailand, it’s also important for Thailand and its Tourism Authority to reflect on what it is they want their tourism to look like. We all need to clean the slate and purify our goals. We need Songkran’s annual interactive baptismal frenzy to wash the slate clean and allow us to go into the New Year with a clean perspective. This past spring it applied a most welcome cleansing to a country that seemed to be acting so out of character in news feed of martial law and political outrage.
There’s plenty of room for purification on all sides and not just the sides wearing Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. Many of the tourists we send to Thailand could use some purifying also. Exploiting poverty through sex tourism seems a lot worse to me than demonstrating in Bangkok. You should always bring your best ethics with you when you travel. It’s the mindful thing to do, especially in a place where people treat visitors so respectfully.
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